The publishing industry has evolved by leaps and bounds since Anima. In the period spanning 2005-2010, digital technology growth allowed stories to reach readers in untraditional ways, such as e-readers. This means that bookstores and the print book itself began to face obsolesce.
Brave, new world
For the comic industry, graphic novels were also picking up traction. Readers in North America were realizing that comics needn’t be limited to superheroes, and started looking at graphic novels that explored other themes. Time magazine reported that graphic novel sales tripled during this period.
This time also saw a massive proliferation of webcomics. Before 2005, there was a limited selection of quality webcomics, and you could probably count the good webcomics with your fingers (Sluggy Freelance, Neo Tokyo, etc.). By 2010 even mainstream publishers and producers were getting in on the action. Hundreds of new webcomics were launched every day by pros and wet-nosed amateurs alike. The industry’s top award bodies (such as the Eisners) also recognized webcomics as a legitimate medium by having categories dedicated to them.
The biggest advantage of this medium was the low startup cost of making a webcomic. In the old days, you’d need to spend money to print and bind every new comic book or booklet; to do it professionally, you’d have to sink in thousands of dollars, like what I did for Anima. With a webcomic you could let anyone in the world see your work, anytime.
Unfortunately these tectonic shifts came with their own setbacks. Since it became much easier for creators to get their work out, traditional funding sources for aspiring authors stopped supporting them. The biggest example would be the Xeric Foundation, long famed for spending millions to fund authors’ debut publishing projects. As you can see from this message, the foundation decided that webcomics were enough for new authors to get their exposure and withdrew their support forever.
Getting your comic online didn’t change anything – as anyone could do it by 2010, you’d need to spend money and effort on advertising to get potential readers’ attention. It has only gotten more difficult in a space that is severely overcrowded today. Of course, there are those who have done well and see their webcomics become popular (Penny Arcade, etc.). A preference for short comic strips and a limited handful of themes, such as games, began to emerge over time. The popularity of such work motivated new creators to make comics along these lines. So, the new frontier was no longer an egalitarian utopia where all genres could have a chance to shine.
At around this time, a new concept in publishing emerged: print-on-demand books. New digital printing technology allowed customized print runs even as small as one single book. This let both publishers and authors save on overheads – they could print a new book only when a customer wished to order one. This was not possible in traditional printing, where print runs started at a minimum of a few thousand. Nonetheless, print-on-demand has its technical limits, such as a limited range of book sizes and quality.
Based on all these and my previous experience, I planned how best to publish my next graphic novel. The actual work was more complex, but this was what it boiled down to: I believed an indie creator should start with a webcomic (plus social media/advertising promotions today), garner a pool of supporters with it, then sell the e-book, print book, or more tangible versions of the work to this audience. Naturally, this is the strategy for individual or small publishers; this cannot trump the awesome resources traditional publishers have to promote their new titles.
Journey to Dog-Land
With Seven Years in Dog-Land, I wanted to explore more serious themes that affected society. My years of reading serious literature showed its impact in this project. At the onset, Dog-Land is about humans’ relationship with animals and nature. As the story progresses, the development and state of human society is examined. Finally, once the reader sees the complete ‘seven years’ experienced by the lead character Alice, a statement on the cycle of life unveils itself.
Despite being a pure black-and-white production as opposed to Anima, each page in Dog-Land took just as long to make: four hours from blank page to finished product. On the whole, it took more effort to make Dog-Land on a per-page basis. The most obvious reason was the more detailed art style. Then there were the environment designs – not much thought went into the environments in Anima, but much research and conceptual work went into the backgrounds of the locales in Dog-Land. Finally, Dog-Land’s plot was far more complicated and required a full manuscript before anything was put to art. That manuscript was refined countless times during both the draft and the art stages.
I still held a full-time job, so I would reach home before 8pm every day and tried to produce two complete pages. The work would usually keep me up till 2am. There was a period of time when I didn’t hold a full-time job, and I saw this as an opportunity to complete the book. In fact, I turned down an offer from a world-renowned management consultancy for Dog-Land, as I realized it would take a very long time to make the book while holding down a day job. I spent around seven months working on Dog-Land full-time, making four complete pages each day. The book was finally finished after a year or so.
Eventually, Seven Years in Dog-Land was made available in major online bookstores and e-book channels, such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple iBooks, NOOK, Kobo, and more (full details here). The list is still expanding. The webcomic version first appeared on Smackjeeves.com, a major webcomic hosting portal, and received 5/5 stars from readers. It generally received good reviews from indie reviewers, sometimes even from sites that reviewed non-comics. In 2012 it was a finalist in the Self-Published Author Awards. It is still carried by Graphicly.com, a world-leading digital comic distributor. In 2011 it was a ‘featured title’ alongside those from the big-name studios on Graphicly.
The hard knocks
I’m not famous enough to give advice or some formula for publishing success. More appropriate would be sharing the mistakes I made – things I could have done better, to save you time if you embark on your own creation or publishing journey.
The first mistake I made was not starting small and being too inflexible. My first major public work was Anima, and it was a story done my style, my way. Nothing wrong with that, but it might have been done better if the public had been more familiar with me, and thus more willing to accept an original work from me. I could have started small and started early. This means making ad-hoc work for my immediate communities, like the schools I studied in, and even focusing on the themes closer to these communities. These might consist of short, funny, insightful cartoons on current issues – minor, regular projects that would familiarize people with my name.
I judged such an undertaking boring and didn’t want to do it. A true creative professional would disagree and argue that sometimes, creative success involves thinking within a box. If I talked about the issues that those around me hold dear, they would listen if I started on my original work. This is usually what how a career pans out for many successful creators. Once I became an editor and paid creative professional, I realized that making content based on fixed requirements and on demand is a vital skill if one wishes to rise above the amateurs’ circle.
My second major mistake was harbouring the mistaken notion that I could make comics a viable full-time career. This is the province for the lucky few and every creator starting out should not let decisions be based on this notion. For the average creator, pursuing the art is a constant struggle and the money is seldom enough for sustenance. For certain periods of time, I tried doing my art full-time… with disastrous consequences. Fortunately I had good qualifications and other skills to find mainstream employment, so my flirtation with this idea was brief.
The oft-clichéd advice of going ‘all out’ for your dream is dangerous and misleading. A better variation for a trade as uncertain as comics is to remain focused, but use your head to plan a viable strategy. This is a real dampener, but a good day job is vital for paying those bills and even financing your passion.
To me, the biggest advantage of regular employment or a main income source is the jump in negotiating power regarding any comics-related matter. If I were doing comics full-time I’d be struggling to pay bills and would take any deal that comes my way, making me vulnerable to lousy contracts and cheats. With financial stability, comics becomes a pursuit of my own pace and not a source of severe stress. One can afford to turn down sucker deals, and every good outcome is a bonus since you would expect less to happen with a part-time pursuit. This is invaluable to one’s mental and emotional health. Of course, if you ever make more than ten grand a month for your comics, it makes more sense to quit the day job!
In the past ten years I have tried to turn my lifelong passion into something more concrete. The comic industry is one of the hardest in the world, and even on a part-time basis I have learned a great deal about how things are done in the market – often the hard way.
In the end, it’s the thrill of having your own story and inspiring total strangers that keeps a creator going. Neil Gaiman once advised that beyond making money, having something wholly made by you in the world — in this universe – is priceless…. This should be a creator’s main driving force.
The content of this entry is expanded from a talk I gave at the Queen’s University International Centre (Canada) in January 2012.